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Elgin Marbles letter fetches £7,000

Wednesday, 6 November, 2002, 18:16 GMT

 

A letter which could help to resolve the row between Britain and Greece over the Elgin Marbles has been sold to a Greek buyer at auction for £7,000.

The handwritten 19th-Century letter, bought by an anonymous bidder from Athens, fetched seven times its reserve price after frantic bidding.

It was written by the British Ambassador in 1811 to the seventh Earl of Elgin, suggesting he had no right to buy the 5th-Century artefacts.

The 56 marble sculptures, which once adorned the frieze of the front of the Parthenon, were taken from Athens to England by Elgin and are now on display at the British Museum.

 

Greece wants the marbles returned for an Athens museum display

Interest

Nathan Winter, who oversaw the auction at his brother Dominic's auction house in Swindon, Wiltshire, told BBC News Online there had been "significant interest at home and abroad".

He said: "After a bit of a tussle in the room, it went down to a fight between a telephone bidder and a commission bid, both in Greece.

"We ended up buying the item on behalf of a purchaser from Athens who had sent in a bid by fax earlier in the week."

With commission and tax, the final purchase price came to £8,234.10.

Mr Winter was unable to identify the buyer.

He said there was speculation the man may have been bidding on behalf of campaigners seeking return of the treasures to Athens.

 

The sculptures are on display at the British Museum

The draft letter, which had been expected to realise about £1,000, was written to Lord Elgin - Thomas Bruce - by ambassador Robert Adair in Constantinople (Istanbul).

It was acquired by auctioneers from the library of a family with historical connections to Lord Elgin.

The marbles have been at the centre of a row between Britain and Greece since Elgin was given permission to work on their protection in 1801 when Greece was still under Ottoman (Turkish) control.

Ceremonies

A recent campaign, Parthenon 2004, backed by more than 90 UK MPs and public figures, called for the marbles to be returned to Athens in time for the next Olympic Games.

The marbles date from between 447 and 432 BC and depict the most formal religious ceremonies of ancient Athens - the Panathenaea procession.

Groups opposing their return say they have been saved from deterioration from Greek pollution by being kept in the museum.

 

Hadrian's temple to favourite male lover

FROM RICHARD OWEN IN ROME

October 31, 2002

 

ARCHAEOLOGISTS excavating Hadrian’s villa near Rome have uncovered a hitherto-unknown Egyptian temple built by the Emperor to commemorate the untimely death of his youthful male lover, Antinous.

Although Hadrian (AD117- 138) had numerous mistresses as well as a wife, the Empress Sabina, Antinous was his favourite male lover. The Emperor met Antinous, “a languid and beautiful youth”, at Bithynium in Asia Minor, now Bolu, in Turkey.

Antinous drowned at 20 in the Nile near Alexandria in AD130. It was said that he killed himself in a sacrificial rite, although Hadrian denied this. The Emperor broke down “and cried with the tears of a woman” when he died.

Hadrian had a tomb for Antinous built in Egypt, creating around it a town that was the centre of a cult in which his dead lover was identified with Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife.

Scholars had been puzzled by the apparent absence of a memorial to Antinous at Hadrian’s huge estate at Tivoli, northwest of Rome.

In the 18th century a statue of Antinous as Osiris was found at the villa and deposited in the Vatican Museums.

Anna Maria Reggiani, superintendent of archaeology for the Lazio region, said that archaeologists had begun to dig last month in the area where the statue was found and had uncovered the remains of a temple dedicated to Antinous and Osiris. “This is the missing piece of the jigsaw,” she said.

The temple consisted of a 30-metre wide columned semi-circle behind two rectangular buildings, flanked by a nymphaeum with niches and fountains. Beneath the complex were well-preserved tunnels. The finds included a seated statue in grey granite of the Pharaoh Rameses II, which Hadrian probably had transported from Memphis.

 

All the emotions on display in Southwark Roman cemetery

Love for your family, affection for your pets, anger, fear, superstition - all of these emotions were vividly displayed by the remains of a late 2nd-4th century Roman burial ground excavated this year close to the River Thames in Southwark, South London.

In one grave, a man was found embracing a young woman to his chest. The small skeleton of an infant lay between them. This poignant family group - who presumably all died within a short time of one another - may have succumbed to an epidemic; but the remains themselves provide few clues to the cause of death.

In another grave, a man was buried with the head of an old horse carefully placed between his knees. The horse skull had lost its jawbone, suggesting that a favourite old nag had died before its owner, and its skull kept for a while - possibly on a stake, when the jaw could have fallen off - until both horse and owner could be buried in one grave.

More sinister was the burial of an adult male whose legs had been bound together, and a socketed iron spear point stabbed through both ankles. Was this a cruel punishment-killing? Or a strange post-mortem ritual? Again, the remains themselves provide too few answers. The rest of the skeleton had been destroyed by a later burial. In another grave, an adult skull displayed a healed knife wound.

A total of 166 burials were excavated by AOC Archaeology, led by Giles Dawkes - making this the largest Roman cemetery yet found in Southwark. Many common pathologies were observed including tooth cavities and osteoarthritis. One woman's broken thighbone had been badly set, leaving her left leg at least three inches shorter than her right.

Numerous grave goods included complete pottery and glass vessels, hob-nailed boots and jewellery. One individual was buried with an intaglio ring on the ring finger of the left hand. The ring contained a carved amber-coloured stone displaying a human head with wild hair. About a dozen graves contained black jet beads. Around 600 beads were recovered in total, including over 100 from a single grave. They would originally have been strung together in necklaces. Other jewellery included a shale bracelet, cut in the shape of a twisted metal torc; and a silver earring with a single blue stone.

One skeleton was found with a coin in its mouth, another with a coin in its hand - payment for Charon, ferryman of the underworld. Another grave contained a pot full of chicken bones. A skull pit was found with six carefully-placed skulls, marked by two post holes. A later pit contained a man's body that had been roughly thrown in, along with three disarticulated skulls and a child's leg. Why? Science may provide partial answers to some of these riddles - but the rest must be left to our imagination.

 

Bones raise leprosy doubts

Tuesday, 5 November, 2002, 16:28 GMT

 

Leprosy may have arrived in Britain 1,500 years earlier than first thought, according to evidence taken from an ancient grave in Scotland.

The evidence was taken from bones which were found near Dunbar in East Lothian and which belonged to a child who lived 3,500 years ago.

Julie Roberts, a biological anthropologist with Glasgow University's archaeological research division made the diagnosis.

 

This find may be one of the earliest cases of leprosy in the world so far identified.

Rod McCullagh, Historic Scotland

 

She said: "Although the diagnosis of leprosy cannot be confirmed until DNA tests are complete, the indications that this is leprosy are quite promising.

"Most experts agree that the westward spread of the disease came from the Mediterranean where it is believed to have been introduced by the army of Alexander the Great on returning from India.

"This contagious disease is then thought to have come to Britain with the expansion of the Roman Empire."

The child had died between 1600 and 2000BC.

Ms Roberts said: "This would predate the previously accepted arrival of leprosy in Britain by up to 1,500 years.

 

An anthropologist at Glasgow University made the diagnosis

"If this is the case, then leprosy took some other, unknown, route through Europe's early societies."

Fourteen skeletons from the Bronze and Iron Ages were excavated at the ancient burial site in 1980.

Re-examination of the pre-historic bones has only recently thrown up the new findings.

The child's bones were buried with those of a man, suggesting the child had died some time before the male.

Further tests may reveal whether they were related.

'Fascinating'

Rod McCullagh, principal inspector of ancient monuments with Historic Scotland, said the child appeared to have been the focus of a complex burial ritual.

He said: "Not only is this a fascinating glimpse into Scotland's distant past, but this find may also be one of the earliest cases of leprosy in the world so far identified."

The last indigenous case of leprosy recorded in Britain was in the Shetland Isles in 1798.

The disease, caused by a germ which attacks the nerves of the hands, feet and face, still exists in parts of the developing world.

 

Emergency rescue required for cultural relics in Three Gorges dam area (2)

Story Filed: Tuesday, November 05, 2002 8:12 AM EST

Nov 05, 2002 (Xinhua via COMTEX)

 

Among the protected relics are four "state treasures," which are a 1,700-year-old temple, the ancient Dachang Town reputed for its well preserved and protected Ming-Dynasty style residential architectures, Baiheliang, or the world's oldest hydrologic inscriptions, and a stockade ancient village featuring exquisite wooden structures.

Chinese experts have worked out specific and proper protection methods for each of the archeological treasures.

The Zhang Fei Temple, originally built in honor of General Zhang Fei during the Three Kingdom period (220-280 a.d.) on the banks of the Yangtze River will be displaced and rebuilt brick-for- brick in its new location 32 km west of its existing site. The high-cost relic protection project, including the relocation of the entire construction as well as 126 ancient trees, is the largest relic relocation in China. The original temple will be disassembled by the end of this year.

The ancient Dachang Town will be rescued in a method similar to the Zhang Fei Temple. Its architecture will be rebuilt at a new site 5 km away, which will imitate the original geographic features and cultural flavors. The rebuilding will begin in February next year.

The protection scheme for the Baiheliang is special and unique. It will be turned into an underwater museum. The 1,600-meter long horizontal rock girder with inscriptions dating back 1,200 years will be protected in a container made of concrete and glass at its original site, which will be inundated after the damming.

Protectionists will make use of two low-water seasons to finish the construction of the museum. And an underwater passage will lead tourists to the museum in 2005.

The Shibao Village, dubbed as the world's most complex wooden structures, will be protected by a dyke encircling the village. Passenger and cargo wharves will be erected in April next year at the bank of the village.

Copyright 2002 XINHUA NEWS AGENCY.

Copyright © 2002, Xinhua News Agency, all rights reserved.

 

Mystery is unearthed as workers find bones

By MARK SMITH

 

A MEDIEVAL mystery has been unearthed after workmen dug up ancient human bones on a city building site.

 

Police forensics experts were called in after the grisly find was made while builders were laying the foundations for a luxury flats development in Leith.

 

Workmen at first feared that they may have stumbled over recent human remains.

 

But police later revealed that they believed the two human thigh bones, which were found side by side, were actually buried at least 200 years ago. Archaeologists were today unable to explain how the thigh bones came to be buried side by side with the rest of the skeleton nowhere to be found.

 

A spokesman for the city council’s archaeology team said: "We have been on site all day carrying out an excavation.

 

"The remains will now be analysed to try to find out more about them. At the moment it is a mystery to us what they are and how they came to be there."

 

A Lothian and Borders Police spokesman said their experts were also stumped as to the origins of the bones.

 

He said: "Our forensics experts attended the scene shortly after the bones were found by workmen. Dr Basil Purdie, our expert in these matters, has concluded that the bones are human but it looks like they were buried hundreds of years ago. They may be medieval or even older. We are waiting on a second opinion on the age of the bones.

 

"How human leg bones have come to be buried there is not known. If there was foul play it was such a long time ago that there is nothing police can really do about it."

 

Shocked builders halted work after digging up the human bones at the site in Graham Street, where local firm Ballast Construction is building luxury flats.

 

One worker, who was on site when the bones were discovered, said: "It definitely looked like two human thigh bones.

 

"I can’t think what else they could be. It was a horrible thing to discover.

 

"Work had to stop straight away until we knew what we were dealing with." Labourers had been digging ten-ft deep holes to lay foundations for the flats when the discovery was made.

 

Concrete was set to be poured into the holes before the remains were found.

 

Brian Reid, area manager for Ballast Construction, said work stopped immediately after the find was made and the police were called in.

 

He said: "It’s certainly an unusual thing to find on a building site. But the timing, straight after Hallowe’en, could not have been better.

 

"We acted properly in contacting the police straight away. Building work was stopped on that part of the site while police carried out their investigations.

 

"Archaeologists are now on site to try to find out if there are any more remains in the area."

 

Historic Scotland has now been made aware of the bones find.

 

Officials there are keeping an open mind on the remains, a spokeswoman said.

Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 17:57 GMT

 

A worm's-eye view of the Incas

When the Spanish invaded South America many artefacts of the Inca people were destroyed. But now research into parasitic worms in fossilised human faeces is shedding light on the lifestyle of this ancient civilisation, says Kate Ravilious

04 November 2002

 

The Inca people are usually remembered for introducing a sophisticated culture and civilised society to much of South America. In their heyday during the 15th century they were comparable to ancient Roman societies. Places such as Machu Picchu and Pisac are a visual reminder of their skill and precision in stone masonry, while the Inca Trail provides evidence of the roadways that they built, running the length and breadth of South America. And up in the Andes, the Inca terraces and irrigation channels, teetering along the hillsides, are still used to this day to farm the steep land. But now it turns out that the Inca people's lives were not as comfortable as they first appeared, and the marching progress of the Inca empire also carried a rather unwelcome gift.

Dr Calogero Santoro, an archaeologist at the Museo Arqueológico San Miguel de Azapa, University of Tarapacá, Chile and Professor Karl Reinhard, a pathoecologist from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, USA, have spent the past 10 years carrying out some rather grim research. They have been analysing ancient faeces and delving into the intestines of ancient mummies. Now their results are showing how the change in lifestyle imposed by the invading Incas caused parasitic disease to increase.

Much of the history and many of the artefacts from the Inca empire were destroyed by the Spanish when they invaded South America in the 1530s. The Inca roads were torn to shreds by the heavy wagons and horses' hooves of the Spanish invaders; many of the stone buildings were destroyed in the belief that they were the work of the devil, and the carefully crafted golden statues of Inca gods were melted down. For this reason we are surprisingly ignorant about the Inca civilisation as there is little left for archaeologists to piece together how they lived.

Reinhard and Santoro have resorted to analysing something that the Spanish invaders didn't destroy – human faeces. They have excavated ancient settlements in the Lluta valley, near the modern city of Arica, Chile. This area lies near a river in the Atacama Desert region. The proximity of the river means that the area has been inhabited almost continuously for thousands of years, while the dry desert climate means that the remains are well preserved. As time went by the soft soil next to the river subsided and houses sunk slowly into the mud. Forgotten odds and ends from people's daily lives were trampled in and travelled downwards along with the building foundations. Over time the history of the Lluta valley people has been preserved, layer by layer, in the soil.

One of the most important aspects of the excavation for Santoro was to uncover the latrines in the ancient settlements and collect samples of fossilised human faeces. In the Lluta valley he unearthed the latrines and collected individual stools from two time periods corresponding to two soil horizons. The uppermost horizon dated back to the time of the Inca occupation, during the 15th century. Foundations of small towns were evident, with both public buildings and family homes clustered together. The older and deeper horizon dated back to between 1100AD and 1400AD. At this point, the Incas hadn't yet arrived and people lived a fairly simple life. Small settlements were unearthed that contained just a scattering of houses and sometimes a cemetery.

Back in his lab in Nebraska, Reinhard carefully resuscitated each individual stool with mild chemical solutions so that they could be analysed, just like modern clinical faecal samples. He then looked at the contents of each stool under a high-powered microscope. Among the bits of undigested corn and manioc, Reinhard could identify the larvae and eggs of different parasitic worms. The four most common parasitic worms that he saw were pinworm, fish tapeworm, hymenolepidid tapeworm and whipworm. These parasites all live in the human gut, gorging themselves on the food passing through and often damaging the person's intestine. They still exist today but advances in modern medicine mean that they are less troublesome than they were in the past.

By carefully counting the numbers of each type of parasite egg and larvae in each slide Reinhard noticed a dramatic change in parasite infection between the pre-Inca and Inca time-periods. The pre-Inca people appeared to have a bit of a problem with whipworm and hymenolepidid tapeworm. Around 7 per cent of the pre-Inca faeces that Reinhard analysed contained larvae or eggs from these parasitic worms. "The unfortunate individuals who had whipworm or hymenolepidid tapeworm might have had to endure a nagging stomach-ache, and in the more severe cases they might have suffered from toxicity from the parasites' metabolic by-products," says Reinhard. It certainly wasn't pleasant, but the level of infection was mild compared with what was to come later.

Once the Incas settled in the valley a serious infection of pinworm occurred, with almost a quarter of the population carrying the larvae. On top of this, the first signs of the fish tapeworm appeared in that region. The pinworm is a particularly repulsive worm that wriggles down the intestine during the night and comes out to lay its eggs around the anus. This causes intense itchiness and often disturbs the sleep of the victim. Meanwhile, the fish tapeworm produces unique symptoms relative to other tapeworms such as stomach-ache, weight loss and anaemia. If anyone was unlucky enough to have more than one of these parasites, they would have been very weak indeed. "It is unlikely that any treatments were available for these parasites as no evidence for the relevant medicinal plants and herbs were found during the excavations," says Reinhard. "People would have just had to live with the parasites and in small children this may have been fatal if compounded with other diseases."

But what was it about the Incas that the parasites found so tasty? Reinhard began to think about how each parasite is transmitted, and realised that the change in lifestyle associated with the Inca civilisation could be to blame for the increase in parasitic disease. Both the whipworm and the hymenolepidid tapeworm are passed on by faecal contamination of hands, food, water and crockery. In contrast, pinworm is spread by person to person contact, or through the air, while the fish tapeworm is contracted by eating poorly cooked fish. "The pre-Inca people had problems with diet and poor-hygiene related parasites, while the crowded Inca towns developed the additional problem of airborne parasites," says Reinhard.

During pre-Inca times, the Lluta valley had a scattering of small, simple hamlets and the people survived mainly by subsistence farming. When the Incas arrived they abolished homesteads and re-settled people into large towns and cities, concentrating the population in a few places. "Population crowding caused poor sanitation and hygiene, and allowed the pinworm to get a hold," says Reinhard. The Incas also encouraged trading between places, and diet became more varied. Fish was transported inland from the coast, while tuber crops such as potatoes were transported down from the highlands. "Increased trading made fish a more common part of the diet, and the fish tapeworm began to proliferate."

The Incas' highly developed civilisation was the root of their problems. Building towns and opening up trade routes brought many benefits but not without the drawback of spreading disease. And Reinhard's research indicates that the level of parasitic infection would have had a real weakening effect on the Inca population.

Reinhard is not just trying to put historical records straight when he studies these ancient diseases. He hopes to shed light on the evolution of pathogens and the origins of ancient plagues. The ancient faeces offer several new clues, and now Reinhard hopes to use molecular probes to search for DNA and see how diseases develop over time. The Spanish conquistadors may have melted down all the gold, but to Reinhard and Santoro human excrement has turned out to be the more valuable commodity.

 

 

Gusts delay ship's excavation

 

Windy conditions have delayed the removal of some of the final parts of a medieval ship discovered buried in the banks of a south Wales river.

A team of experts had planned to lift the keel of the 15th Century vessel as part of a £3.5m restoration project, following the discovery at the site of a new arts centre in Newport.

But gusts of wind prevented workers from beginning the removal of the 23-metre oak timber until 1600 GMT on Thursday.

Experts were only able to lift one section before the light faded, but they hope to complete the process on Friday depending on the weather conditions.

The keel, which is the last visible piece of the ship, had to be cut into five sections in order for a crane to raise it.

As the parts are extracted from the banks, they will be transported to be stored in water tanks nearby.

So far 2,000 pieces of the ship have been taken to containers at the Corus steelworks at Llanwern near Newport to prevent erosion by air.

The ship was discovered when builders started hollowing out the orchestra pit of the new theatre and art centre which is under constructed.

 

Charles Ferris, who is founder of the Friends of the Ship group which mounted a campaign to preserve the ship was at the site on Thursday.

"I come up here everyday to see how the progress is getting on and seeing this last section removed is very exciting," he said.

"The ship has such historical importance it was vital that it was saved.

"We have had people from all over the world supporting us.

"The next stages of the excavation will involve removing the stern and bow which will take place next year," he added.

 

Historians say it may be more important than the Mary Rose

The project team has already excavated much of the vessel, which is thought to be a century older than Henry VIII's legendary flagship, the Mary Rose.

The bow and the stern are the only remaining pieces which have yet to be unearthed, but plans are in place for them to be removed in the New Year.

A £3.5m Welsh Assembly Government grant to preserve the craft was pledged in August after a high-profile campaign mounted by archaeologists.

Thousands of people flocked to the bank of the Usk during the summer as contractors made way for archaeologists' attempts to lift the boat.

The remains of the restored ship will be displayed at their planned resting place in Newport's new arts centre, scheduled for a 2004 opening.

Visitors will be able to see it through a glass floor, and there will also be a viewing gallery on the lower level.

 

 

Study Begins on Confederate Warship

Friday November 1, 2002 10:30 AM

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP)

 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun an investigation of how to save the remains of the sunken confederate warship CSS Georgia.

What is left of the boat now lies in the path of a planned $200 million expansion of Savannah Harbor. The cost of excavating its remains, salvage artifacts and stabilize whatever archaeologists leave on the bottom of the Savannah River could run as high as $13.4 million.

The wreck lies in 35 feet of water downstream from Savannah. Sonar readings have shown the ironclad is collapsing and might be slowly sliding into the ship channel.

``Basically, we want to have a plan for the CSS Georgia,'' said Col. Roger Gerber, the corps' Savannah district commander. The study began this week. ``We want to know what we need to do to preserve her and how best to get it done.''

Using sonar and other devices, archaeologists from the corps, the National Park Service and the U.S. Navy's Naval Historical Center hope in the next few months to piece together the first accurate picture of the wreckage.

``They won't be excavating, but there will be a lot of mapping and probing,'' corps archaeologist Judy Wood says. ``If the harbor-deepening project goes forward, we could be working on the Georgia for the next five or six years.''

The Georgia effort follows the raising of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley two years ago from Charleston harbor. The turret of the USS Monitor was recovered off Cape Hatteras this summer.

The Georgia was one of three Confederate ironclads built in Savannah after the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack, off Hampton Roads, Va., in 1862.

The ship originally was a U.S. revenue cutter that had been seized at the start of the war. Local carpenters and railroad workers rebuilt it and armored it with 500 tons of iron.

On its maiden voyage, it ran aground three miles downstream and remained there for the rest of the war.

 

Researcher Exposes Archaeological Fraud, Hoaxes

Story Filed: Thursday, October 31, 2002 10:37 PM EST

NEW BRITAIN, Conn., Oct 31, 2002 (ASCRIBE NEWS via COMTEX)

 

If you're planning an expedition to search for the lost continent of Atlantis, or if you're seeking to visit foreign lands to prove that astronauts visited Earth during ancient times, you might want to speak with Kenneth L. Feder before making your travel plans.

Feder, a professor of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University, will tell you that there was no Atlantis and there were no ancient astronauts. And he will tell you in convincing fashion.

Feder is a leading authority on archaeological myths and fraud and, in fact, he's written a book on the subject, Frauds, Myths and Mysteries (McGraw-Hill Mayfield, 355 pages). First published in 1990 and now in its fourth edition, the book is widely used in college classrooms across the country. It also was recently named one of the best in its field by the readers of Skeptic magazine ( www.skeptic.com), joining a list featuring the works of such well-known individuals as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Betrand Russell. The book's success has been remarkable, considering that it was initially rejected by 15 publishers.

"If it weren't for archaeological fraud no one would know my name," Feder said with a smile. Since his book was published, Feder has done interviews on archaeology fraud, myths and mysteries with the History Channel, the Learning Channel, the BBC and BBC Radio. The programs have been so popular that while visiting in France this summer, Feder was stopped by a man from Holland who recognized him from his appearances on the BBC.

Feder traces his interest in exposing archaeological fraud to the book, Chariots of the Gods? written by Swiss author Erich von Daniken. "I remember in college hearing a review of von Daniken's first book, late at night on some radio station," Feder said. "I remember thinking, 'This guy is whacked.' I read the book, and it was absolutely hilarious. That sort of inspired me to track down other things like it."

Feder's interest took on new meaning when he began teaching at Central in 1977. He was asked to develop an introductory anthropology course to attract new students to the discipline. "I was wracking my brain and then I thought, 'I bet students would be interested in this wacky stuff -- frauds and myths. Maybe that will draw kids in,'" he said. And he was right. Every year, the course, The Ancient World, is over-enrolled.

"This is a good course and it has evolved to become a course about science. My expertise is about the human past, and we focus on how scientists assess claims," Feder explained.

One problem with teaching the course was that the best book on the subject of archaeological myths went out of print in the mid-1960s. Other books were written, but they didn't quite fit Feder's purpose. That's what inspired him to write his book in which he explores a host of well-known and not-so-well-known frauds, myths and mysteries of archaeology. Included among the many topics are examinations of the Cardiff Giant, a hoax about the remains of a biblical giant discovered in New York state in 1869, and the Piltdown Man, an alleged missing-link skull found in England in 1912 that was hailed as a major discovery. The book also disputes visits by ancient space travelers and examines the origin of the story of the Lost Continent of Atlantis.

"Archaeology is blessed and cursed by being really popular," Feder said. "Most students come into my class knowing about archaeology, but the curse is that so much of the interest and excitement is generated by stuff that is just garbage."

Feder's interest in archaeology began when he was a little over three years old. "I wanted to grow up and be a dinosaur. When I figured out I couldn't be a dinosaur, I decided to be a guy who studies dinosaurs and that led to an interest in archaeology," he said.

But wasn't until his sophomore year at the State University of New York, Stony Brook that Feder became serious about his childhood obsession. During that year, he took an anthropology course and wrote a research paper that caught the attention of a graduate teaching student. The graduate student encouraged Feder to pursue a degree in anthropology, which Feder initially resisted until he learned that anthropology includes the study of the human past (archaeology), as well as the present. He had found his niche and eventually went on to earn his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Connecticut.

The decision to become a teacher was easy for Feder, because his father had been a teacher. "I'm a lot like my dad. I'm very comfortable talking to people," he said. "When I was in high school, the way I studied was that I closed the door to my room, and I would give a lecture to myself. I figured that if I could explain a topic out loud and off the top of my head, that meant that I really understood it. It's like practicing in front of a mirror. I guess I became good at it."

At Central, Feder says his goal is not to produce more archaeologists, but to get his students to think critically about the past and the world we live in. "What distinguishes us from other animals is our brain and vast intelligence. What are we going to fill it up with? I just happen to be interested in the dim mists of antiquity. All of us are fascinated by other countries. The past is a foreign country, there's a book by that title, and that's what archaeology is like. There were people who lived right here 5,000 years ago, and studying them is like visiting a foreign country.

"Archaeologists are like kids," he continued. "We get to play in the dirt and pretend to be detectives and try to figure out things about places and people who aren't here any more. We get to do that as part of our profession. What's better than that?"

Lord of the rings

From Mr Fred Mustill

Sir: After a visit to Kinver Edge in Worcestershire, there is little doubt in my mind where Tolkien got his inspiration for hobbit holes ('Lord of the Hrungs', June). There are numerous dry and well-drained dwellings there, hewn into the soft sandstone cliffs. They are nothing like Saxon sunken-floored dwellings - which David Hinton suggests may have the inspiration - but are true subterranean houses with large doors, windows, and chimneys. In fact, they are just as Tolkien described hobbit holes. There are even pine trees there, just as in Tolkien's drawings of Hobbiton.

From the hill top at Kinver Edge, Tolkien's home ground on the southern outskirts of the Black Country can be seen. The countryside here is full of small, rounded sandstone hills ideal for underground houses. In Kinver Edge there is a large underground factory which I believe manufactured aero engines during the Second World War.

Yours sincerely,

Fred Mustill

Penzance

8 August